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The Lewis Legacy-Issue 77, Summer 1998

In the Footsteps of Boyd

In April 1998 the glitterati of the New York art world gathered at a partyin Jeff Koons’ large gallery to launch best-selling British author William Boyd’s new book, the biography of an obscure and tragic American artist named Nat Tate. The Sunday Telegraph ran a full-page extract from the evocative book. Its publisher is 21 Publishing, a company run by musician David Bowie, Sir Timothy Saintsbury, a London Gallery owner named Bernard Jacobson, and Karen Wright, editor of Modern Painters magazine. Nat Tate, an abstract expressionist friend of Braque and Picasso, was an acquaintance of Gore Vidal and one of the lovers of Peggy Guggenheim, the great art museum founder. His paintings have hung in the Peggy Singer gallery and several others. But his mother had died when he was a boy, leaving him an orphan, and as a young adult he suffered from depression and heavy drinking. At 31 he burned all his recent paintings and committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island ferry. His body was never found. At the book launch party members of the art cognoscenti listened respectfully as William Boyd read sad passages from the biography. When asked about Tate by a reporter, they murmured comments like “Not terribly well known… didn’t have much of a reputation outside New York…” The next day the curious reporter trekked to addresses of the galleries cited in the book and found that they didn’t exist. Neither did Nat Tate. The published photos of Nat Tate and his art were fakes, but Jeff Koons and other art experts at the launching party were fooled, The publishers explained, “Part of it was we were very amused that people kept saying ‘Yes, I’ve heard of him.’ There is a willingness not to appear foolish. No one wants to admit they’ve never heard of him. No one can have heard of every artist. But critics are too proud to admit that.” Gore Vidal and David Bowie had not only gone along with the elaborate hoax, but provided tongue-in-cheek blurbs for the cover.